‘THOMAS’ by Gareth Jack Sansom
Thomas wasn’t like all of the other children. From the moment he had been delivered by the midwives at St. Mary’s Hospital eleven years earlier, his mother Kathleen had quickly realised that something had gone terribly wrong. She could tell by the looks on their faces as they held him at arm’s length, several of them crying softly that her son had not been born whole. During an earlier routine check-up, her nurses had told her that there were several minor anomalies that were relatively common, however as her term was many weeks shorter than it should have been and complications during her labour had caused her to be in an incredible amount of pain, she couldn’t help but worry.
Her carriage had been extremely difficult overall, and as the child grew inside her she had begun to feel strange sensations of movement that were abnormal, at least insofar as what she had been told to expect. Thomas had struggled, kicked and tossed in the womb almost constantly, and the terrible nightmares that recurred throughout those months had caused her a great deal of discomfort and distress. She had tried to dismiss her concerns however, just hoping and praying that she would make it through the other side without losing him.
On the morning when he finally arrived, a gale outside the hospital had raged and roared, the noise only drowned out by her own agonising screams as she struggled to give birth to her first and only son. She laboured long into the night, naturally delivering her baby boy just as the winds stilled and dawn crept over the horizon, and when she had finally held him for the first time she too burst into tears. The child had been born with a strong defect – brittle bones and a large hump in the middle of his back and although he was remarkably calm and quiet, the sight of what could only mean a lifetime of pain and hardship for the boy was more than she could bear. Kathleen broke down, and for a long time could barely stand to look at him.
Throughout the pregnancy her own mother had often asked about the father, and every time she would give the same answer; “He was just a gentle stranger,” she would say, “a soldier on leave. I’d broken down on the road north out of town one hot summer’s afternoon, and he’d offered me a lift back to call a mechanic. He had the kindest eyes, and had asked to stay with me until I was back on the road.. a true gentleman.”
She refused to go into any further detail, more so because she was still hurt by the fact that so soon after their brief rendezvous he had simply up and left one morning, never to be heard from again. “Michael,” he had said his first name was, and had never given a last. She had fallen quickly and deeply in love, and had not been able to bring herself to be with anyone else since finding out that she was pregnant. Knowing that the child grew within her even early on had made it feel like he was still somehow close.
Michael and Kathleen had spent the better part of a week together before he just mysteriously disappeared one day. He had rented a room in a motel on the outskirts of town, and had explained to her that he was only passing through on his way back home from a posting on the front line. Kathleen had assumed this to have meant a tour of duty in the Middle East, but knew better than to pry too deep into where and what he had been involved with during his service.
All that he had said of his time abroad was that he had seen more than his fair share of violence and heartache, and was contemplating leaving the force for good this time. She poured her heart out, sharing her hopes and dreams as they talked for hours and hours, long into the evening on their first day. By the second they had found themselves unable to resist growing more intimate, quickly becoming passionately involved and Kathleen felt for the first time that she had finally found a man who could make her feel complete.
She had awoken early in the morning on the fourth day to stop-by the motel and surprise him with coffee and a homemade breakfast, however when she arrived was informed by reception that he had already checked-out a short time earlier. After asking to borrow the key to check his room, she entered to find that the other side of the queen sized bed they had shared was still slightly warm. When she walked back out into the parking lot of the complex and looked up and down the street, he was nowhere to be seen and she realised that he was indeed well and truly gone. He had left nothing at all behind save for a single page from a motel notepad at reception which had read:
“Dear Kath, I’ve received orders to leave this morning and return to my station. I feel that seeing you first would only have made things more difficult – I’m sorry. Thank you for everything, and I hope you can understand. Love, Mike.”
She had asked around town to see if there was anybody else that might spoken with or had an idea of how to reach him without any luck, and cursed herself for not insisting on at least getting a contact number from him. She kept the note, and checked-in back at the motel for weeks afterwards in the faint hope that he might return, before finally accepting the fact that he was gone for good, and she would be alone to deal with the consequences of their affair. That consequence was Thomas.
Her son had found adjusting to life as a different child to be extremely difficult. Not just for the obvious visible abnormalities, but also that his weak bones had meant that he needed to be treated with kid gloves. As with many premature children, Thomas was slight and frail, and prone to moments of imbalance and vertigo, as though he had never quite got the hang of walking.
Sometimes all it would take would be for him to lose his footing, and an awkward landing could easily result in several broken bones and another stay in hospital. He was extremely fair, with white blonde hair and pale blue eyes and almost seemed like a ghost as he softly wandered the halls of his school, careful not to draw any further attention to himself.
The other children throughout his early and primary schooling had quickly decided to ostracise him, calling him nicknames such as ‘Backpack’ and ‘Rickets’ and pushed and bullied the boy whenever they saw him. They would test Thomas constantly, cornering and trapping him in the corridors and hallways of his school and provoking him to fight his way free, thus inevitably injuring himself and not causing any of them to claim responsibility for his broken bones and bruising. His schoolmates were extremely cruel, as children often are, and sometimes made life for Thomas seem like a living hell.
It wasn’t just the other boys, either. Thomas also had a hard time finding the courage to speak to the young girls at his school, who found his appearance to be grotesque and despite his perfect manners and positive approach, not one of them would even give him the time of day. As the years crept by he became isolated, sad and alone, constantly looking over his shoulder only to catch snippets of hushed conversations and the jokes they would make at his expense.
Most of the time he sat by himself and during recesses would try to find an empty classroom to hide in so as to avoid the other children. He would then sit quietly and read until his next class, sometimes books about birds and animals but mostly fantastic stories of far-off worlds and amazing, wonderful people. Anything which might provide an escape from the reality of his own deformities. He also loved to paint and draw, and spent a lot of time trying to recreate those places and animals he had read about, particularly birds in flight. There seemed to be something about how easy it was for them to just pick up and move on at any moment they wanted to that appealed to him.
Often too he had found it all to be too much and would sometimes rush home from school early and burst into tears in front of his mother and grandmother, who would try their hardest to console him. “Why do I look like this..?” he would cry, “Did I do something to deserve it..? I’m a monster..!” He was so clearly wounded by the way that his classmates treated him, and it broke his mother’s heart.
She loved Thomas dearly, and on her own mother’s advice had come to look at his disabilities as a gift – he had in spite of everything developed an amazing empathy and sense of morality, and was painstakingly polite, concerned and well-behaved. “He is every mother’s dream,” she would often say to her, “take it as a blessing.” Deeply hurt, Kathleen would simply hold him close and remind him of just how special he was to her, and that things would get better in time.
Thomas himself found this hard to believe. As the years went by, he found that the hump on his back still seemed to be growing, although he noticed his bones to strengthen a little as he grew. His grandmother would make and alter clothing to fit around the long hunch between his shoulders which ran from the base of his spine and broadened as it reached toward the back of his head, forming a dense and irregular lump that jutted-out and made fitting into normal clothes almost impossible.
He had been forced to wear the same metal braces on his legs that one could expect to be found on a child with rickets, and whenever his class had had to take physical education, his doctor insisted that a special lined helmet and pads be worn, which only further fuelled the teasing, bullying and name-calling he received from the other students.
On the morning of his twelfth birthday, Thomas awoke to find a special breakfast that his grandmother had prepared waiting for him downstairs. It was his favourite – buttered toast, scrambled eggs and bacon, and although his mother had started work early that day, she had also left a small gift for him on the kitchen counter, which he couldn’t wait to unwrap. As soon as he had finished eating, he threw a quick glance at his grandmother who smiled and nodded, and he then proceeded gleefully to tear the brightly coloured blue and green wrapping paper from around it.
He gasped audibly as he held up a packet of brightly coloured pastels and a beautifully adorned sketch book that his mother had herself decorated by hand, with his name embossed in metal leaf on the front cover. He couldn’t believe it, and the smile that her gift had brought to his face quickly spread to his grandmother who told him to “Put that safely in your schoolbag dear, and thank your mother when you get home.” She turned to start cleaning the dishes, and Thomas did as she asked before securing his braces and leaving through the front door, a spring in his step.
As much as he loved his mother, he had grown to develop a strong affinity with his grandmother who seemed always to have the time to spend with him. Without his father around, Thomas needed as much support from his family as he could get and he was always excited and challenged by the wisdom she would impart to him.
She had used to read and tell stories to him as he lay in agony in his younger years, her soothing voice helping to calm him down as she spoke softly of far away places, clear skies and new and different people. While broken bones set and the sting of mockery and abuse burned deep within him, she would always be there to take his mind off of the pain and spirit him away to a world of possibilities.
Kathleen had become quite busy in working alone to provide for him, and with her mother now retired it was a welcome helping hand that she could provide by staying home and looking after Thomas while she was out. She stood by the kitchen window and watched him leave, inspired as always by his ability to smile in spite of his hardship and prayed as she always did for his safety and happiness.
Thomas arrived at school that day just in time to make it to his home room before his teacher, Miss Davis closed the doors locking any stragglers out. He was moving down the aisle between two rows of desks, rushing to reach a seat at the back of the room when all of a sudden his feet slipped out from under him and he came crashing to the ground.
His books flew into the air as he threw his arms forward to stop himself from landing face-first, and as his left wrist connected with the classroom floor the air was split by a sickening crunch as his brittle bones shattered under the weight of his body. Several students gasped and two girls screamed as they caught a glimpse of his twisted left hand, flopping about on the end of his arm while he himself rolled over and yelled in pain.
Thomas lay on the ground wincing in agony, and as he braced his wrist and went to sit up he saw two of his classmates high-fiving each other. One of the two boys, a bully named Mark was dragging his leg back from the aisle as they did and it was more than obvious that he had tripped him up. Miss Davis quickly rushed across the room to look after Thomas, helping him to his feet and asked him what had happened.
Thomas looked up at Mark who glared threateningly back at him, before saying, “It’s nothing, my.. my foot caught on the desk leg. I must have tripped – I’m so sorry.” She frowned, not entirely convinced and he choked back tears as he held his wounded arm close and was escorted out of class and to the sick bay by another student. As usual she had had her back turned to the class when the incident occurred, and as she did not see what had taken place could do little more about it besides calling his mother.
As he sat in the sick bay, Thomas took out his new sketch book from his bag and with his right hand began to draw a colourful scene of a lush green meadow, complete with horses, birds and butterflies. He knew it would be awhile before his mother would be able to stop by and pick him up, and used the time to take his mind off of his injury. Eventually she did arrive and rushed into the sick bay to hold him close, saddened to see her son yet again sitting there, hurt and alone.
“What happened..?” she asked, holding out his wrist, “Did one of the other boys do this to you..?” He then gave her the same story that he had given Miss Davis a short time earlier, despite knowing full well that he had been tripped on purpose. In spite of what had happened, he felt that there wasn’t much point to retaliating and getting Mark in trouble. Thomas then remembered his birthday gift, and kissed his mother on the cheek, “Thank you so much, Mama – it’s just what I needed.” The two of them returned home where he sat and rested under the gentle shade of a tall oak tree in the yard, drawing away while she watched from the kitchen window feeling fearful and concerned.
The next day, Thomas returned to school with his left arm braced and bandaged. It did little good for the school nurse to apply plaster, as if they had done so for every time he’d broken anything he’d never have had it taken off. Luckily he found his bones to knit quite quickly, and all that was needed were a few sturdy steel rods and tightly wound bandages to hold it rigid. He had made it through his home room class without any further incident this time around, although the same boy Mark and his best friend Danny had spent an unusual amount of time staring back at him, laughing and whispering to each other which made him feel uneasy.
Mark’s own parents had recently separated, and this had caused him to look outward for ways to distract himself from what had become a volatile situation at home. He had teased and bullied Thomas in the past, but now more than ever he hounded the boy, finding him to be a useful tool for escaping from his own problems. Danny was his lackey, and seemed himself to take a kind of sick thrill in picking on the weak and vulnerable.
The bell eventually rang for recess, and as usual Thomas waited for all of the other children to leave before discreetly making his way for the door and scanning the buildings for a room that looked to be unoccupied. He wandered across to a long row of classrooms with his book and pastels in hand and peered through a window whilst standing in the garden bed outside. “Yes,” he thought to himself, “no students or teachers – this is the one.” He then turned around to make his way to the entrance and suddenly stopped dead. Mark and Danny were right there, standing arms crossed and staring him down with their usual throng of followers. They had quietly formed a semi-circle around him and as he stood back against the wall, he began to feel fearful and claustrophobic. Mark spoke first:
“Hey Rickets – just what do you think you’re doing, peering in the windows like that..? Are you some sort of Peeping Tom..?” The children around him laughed, and Thomas gulped before replying, “Hi Mark, no I was just seeing if the class was empty, I.. I just wanted somewhere to sit and draw, that’s all.” The other children giggled, and Mark stepped forward to snatch the sketch book out of his hands, causing his brand new pastel set to drop to the ground and several to shatter as they fell. “What have we got here..?” he asked.
He held the book up to the others, saying, “Get a load of this, guys – it’s Quasimodo’s colouring book..! Let’s take a look and see what the freak’s been doodling.” He then proceeded to tear-out the first few pages that Thomas had been working on, laughing as he did and poking fun at the colourful and imaginative landscapes that he had put so much effort into the day before.
“You’re a real little sissy, aren’t you Tom,” he said, as Thomas’ eyes began to fill with tears, “you wouldn’t think someone with a back like yours could be such a spineless runt.” They began to push Thomas around now, and Mark and Danny both spat in his sketch book before hurling it face-down to the ground and stomping on it. This was the final straw, and Thomas suddenly felt something uncontrollable stirring in him that he’d tried for many years to suppress.
It wasn’t anger, and it definitely wasn’t hate. It was a strong and overpowering feeling of injustice at what was happening to him, and although he had become adept at bottling these sorts of feelings up whenever he was being bullied, the sight of his mother’s gift lying ripped and dirty on the ground and the vivid, colourful smear of his brand new pastel set that had been stomped into the concrete caused him to finally lose control and do something he knew would have dire consequences.
Out of nowhere, he balled his right hand into a fist and reached his crooked shoulder back as Mark, Danny and the rest of the boys suddenly hesitated. He swung his right arm with all of his might, and punched Mark across the jaw with such force that he knew even before the feeling registered that he had broken his hand. The blow sent Mark staggering back and as his arm followed through, Thomas twisted to his left and fell to his knees.
An excruciating pain coursed through his arm as he quickly rose again and found his feet, and for a long minute nobody moved. Thomas had never retaliated before when picked on by the other students, not even once. None of them knew just how to react at first, except for Mark who spat a mouthful of blood to the ground and raised the fingers of his left hand up to touch his lip that that had been split wide by the blow.
Nobody made a sound as the two just stared at each other, contemplating their next move. Mark was breathing heavily and was seeing red, “How dare that hunchbacked little freak fight back..!” he thought to himself, “Hit me..? I’ll break every delicate bone in his twisted little body..!” He was incensed and given his troubles at home considered this to be the perfect way to loose his aggression and get his mind off of the reality that he found himself trapped in. He pointed at Thomas finally, saying coldly, “You’re dead,” and turned to the others to command, “Danny, guys – let’s get the freak..!”
Thomas knew straight away that they were going make him pay for what he’d done, and he knew that they would chase him, beat him and there was even the real possibility that they might cause permanent damage. As little as he cared for his own welfare, he just couldn’t live with himself knowing that he would be responsible for putting his dear mother through such an ordeal and quickly decided that he needed to flee. Before the other children could react, he pushed past Danny and the rest and ran as fast as his legs would carry him, through the playground and out past the schoolyard gates.
The other boys were now so worked up that they took no notice that they too were leaving the school grounds, and they ran out of the gate and chased Thomas down the main street and towards the centre of town. He was running faster that he had ever ran in his life, and could feel his lungs burning and his knees beginning to buckle as his feet pounded the pavement. He knew that he couldn’t go on much further, that he would have to slow down and eventually stop moving altogether and so started to look around for somewhere that he might hide to give them the slip.
They were gaining on him quickly, so he couldn’t simply crouch behind a vehicle or run into an alleyway and besides, the last thing that he wanted was to find himself cornered again. He veered off from the road and sprinted through the doors of the local hospital which he knew was a big enough building to hide in, at least for a little while.
St. Mary’s was in fact the largest building in town, and rose six stories high above the rest of the shops and businesses around it. Thomas flew through the doors and quickly slowed down as he approached reception, careful not to attract any unwanted attention. He gave the receptionist a quick and nervous smile which she returned before he made his way over to the elevators – he was often visiting the hospital for one reason or another, and from his already bandaged arm she had just assumed he was in for another routine follow-up.
Not far behind him, Mark, Danny and the others also reached the glass entrance of the hospital, slowed down and casually wandered past while the receptionist’s back was turned. Just as the elevator doors closed and Thomas disappeared from view, Mark pointed and said to the others, “The elevators – he’s going up..!”
They stood by the grey metal doors and watched the panel above them to see what floor Thomas had gotten of at. “1.. 2.. 3..” the numbers climbed, “4.. 5.. 6.. R.” The display stopped there and Thomas leapt out of the elevator shaft as he reached the roof, and he searched for somewhere to hide hoping that the others had been caught in the hospital foyer and thrown back out again.
They hadn’t however, and squeezed into the next idle elevator, pressing ‘R’ for the roof of the building and slapped and high-five each other for their cleverness. If he was in fact on the roof, then he was trapped. Thomas had decided to hide behind a large steel vent on top of the building and when he finally stopped moving, he collapsed to the ground to catch his breath.
His hand was throbbing and he could tell just by looking at it that several bones had been smashed or jolted out of place when he lashed-out at Mark. His left arm was still useless and his legs ached from the long sprint down Main Street. He knew that if he was found up there, there would be nothing that he could possibly do to defend himself, and nowhere left to run.
Mama had brought him up to be religious. She had taught him from an early age of her God, his angels and of heaven as she knew it, and would read to him from the bible often as he lay in bed either at home or in that very same hospital. As he sat on the roof out of view, he looked skyward and prayed that he might stay hidden and if not, that he might find mercy in the hearts of those who sought to do him harm.
Just as he finished his prayer, he heard the unmistakeable rattle of the elevator doors as they slowly squeaked open again from across the roof, and held his breath as he peeked out over the top of the vent. “Please help me,” he said to himself, “please get me out of here.” He was shaking with fear as they left the confines of the elevator shaft and spread-out across the roof of the building to look for him. The winds up there had suddenly become fierce, and several almost lost their footing as a gale swept across it.
It was only a matter of seconds before Danny reached the vent, and after peering around the side of it he turned and called back to the others, “Hey Mark, guys – I’ve found the little freak. Get over here..!” The rest of the boys converged on where he was hiding and again formed a semi-circle around him, trapping him at the edge of the building while Mark wandered over, glaring at Thomas with a fire in his eyes that resembled pure hatred. The long cut on the left side of his lower lip had dried, and he touched it with his tongue as he stood there, sizing up Thomas who was now himself as white as a sheet.
“So you think you’re a tough guy do you, Rickets..? Think you can step-up and hold your own in a fight – well I don’t think you can. I think we need to see if you can take a punch as well as you can give one first, hey guys..?” He threw his arms wide, bobbed his head and looked around the group, the rest of the boys laughing and egging him on. Thomas felt like he was about to be sick, and as he stood there, his hair tussled by the wild wind and waiting for yet another in an endless line of inevitable beatings, his mind wandered to a more peaceful place. He closed his eyes for a moment, and imagined that he was miles away from Mark, his school and its students and high above the town, far beyond the reach of anyone and just looking down at the rest of the world below.
Suddenly, he felt a strong serenity wash over him and opened his eyes again to see Mark pointing at him and laughing derisively. “What’s the matter, Tom, not going to faint on us, are you..?” he taunted. Thomas was tired. He was tired of the bullying, and the teasing. Tired of the names, the beatings and being pushed around by people that he knew would never, ever stop. He was tired of the pointless lessons, of the small town and its selfish people and suddenly from somewhere deep inside him was overcome by the feeling that it was time for him to move on, time to leave it all behind. Time to put an end to it all.
As the others watched-on in surprise, Thomas climbed up on the ledge at the front edge of the roof behind him and stood facing his attackers. As he found his feet, his thoughts suddenly turned to his mother, and his face sank as he somehow realised that he was about to leave, and might not ever see her again. But as the winds once again picked up, he felt sure that it was time. Time to let go.
“What the hell are you doing, freak..?” Mark called out to him, his voice nearly drowned-out by the rising winds, “Are you trying to get yourself killed..? Get back down here and take your medicine like a man.” Mark nodded to Danny and the others to pull him down, and several of the boys began to slowly edge towards Thomas who was standing perfectly still and staring up and out above their heads. They were only a couple of feet away from closing in on him and about to reach out when the most amazing thing happened, stopping them dead in their tracks.
Above the roar of the wind, the children suddenly heard a loud crack and a sound like the tearing of fabric from behind Thomas, and backed away as his face suddenly contorted into a wild and horrible mask of pain. He buckled and screamed a bloodcurdling scream as two magnificent feathered wings burst forth dramatically from the misshapen hump on his back and stretched-out either side of him, billowing majestically in the wind as it coursed over them. None of them could believe what they were seeing.
From somewhere deep within he had always known that this day would come. He had never known his father, yet to him Michael had always been more than just a faceless soldier. He had listened intently to his mother as she read from the New Testament, riveted and awestruck by those tales of angels and names that somehow seemed comfortable and familiar.
The other children just stood in front of Thomas, mouths agape and their eyes staring as his massive white feathered wings flexed and ruffled beside him, drops of a strange amniotic fluid dripping from them as they shuddered. No-one spoke for a long minute, before Mark looked up at him and asked, “What in God’s name..?”
“What indeed,” Thomas smiled to himself, “In God’s name.” He turned on the ledge then and faced the chill wind, smiling broadly he raised his arms and felt it run over his body. Only now could he understand just how important it had been that his bones remain light and hollow, and he took one last look over his shoulder at the other children before flapping his mighty wings for the first time, and taking-off into the clear and endless skies of his imagination. As the others watched him disappear into the distance, they could just make out a second dark and similarly winged figure descend from the clouds to join him before they both vanished skyward and out of view forever.
Kathleen was leaving the cafe in town that she had worked at for most of the morning when she heard the distant beating of wings from the sky above her, and looked up just in time to make out two huge shadows as they flew across the face of the midday sun and away into the distance. “Mike..” she said softly to herself, dropping her coffee as she realised what had happened. Somehow she knew, somehow she had always known and was filled with a profound calm as she stood and watched them go.
The sketch book that still lay in the playground had blown over in the sudden winds, and when it finally stilled the pages had stopped upon a drawing that Thomas had made the day before, a drawing of a pale blue sky above a sea of white clouds, and two winged angels soaring high above.